[authored by Robert Sands]
A giant in the field of history, art and architecture passed away recently. Vincent Scully was perhaps the most influential voice in humanizing architecture, said the Washington Post in Scully’s obituary, architecture’s purpose “was not to burnish the ego of the architect but to provide humane and beautiful places for community life to flourish.” Scully, perhaps more than anyone else, gave rise to the historical preservation movement. He was the first scholar to emphasize the contribution of the past in its structures and how they fed into the sense of community. His lectures and courses were prized by students at Yale. In those lectures, he explored the importance of maintaining the past in how we build the now and the future, continued the Post, “he stalked the stage, using a long wooden pointer to direct attention to images of Greek temples, the Sistine Chapel, French formal gardens, American Indian dwellings, New England town squares and Italian villages.”
Perhaps the defining moment in the historical preservation movement was Scully’s reaction to the demolition in the 1960s of the once great Penn Station train station in upper Manhattan. For a half a century prior to its destruction, it had welcome travelers like Scully and hundreds of thousands through its turnstiles. Scully wrote about the feelings he had when the great station became an anchor and a place of welcome, especially as a WW II soldier traveling through his journey. Wrote Scully in a 1996 essay on the preservation movement, “During World War II, how many times our emotions were stirred by coming into the city via that wonderful station, that great forest of steel. As we moved forward, all of a sudden the steel was clothed with the glory of public space — not private space, but public space for everyone. It all disappeared.”
Said the Post, Scully’s conclusion from the demolition of Penn Station in 1963 was like a “final thrust of the dagger, Scully wrote, “Once, we entered the city like gods. Now we scurry in like rats, which is probably what we deserve.” The following image is of the glass panels is of a museum on the Yale campus. It wasn’t the modern building that captured Scully, it was what was reflected back, “Next to the surface of those matte panels, the glass simply explodes with light and reflection. And what it’s reflecting are all the building across the street (Vincent Scully, “Louis Kahn and the Ruins of Rome,” http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/621/2/Scully.pdf)
Scully wrote several transformative texts as he explored, refined and tightened his concepts of urban and community to in part the relationship of nature and daily life of the residents. Redevelopment and suburbia hastened the decay of the great urban centers of the 19th century, and freeways cut through or around neighborhoods. There was more than old buildings falling a part that cut deep in Scully, it was the sense of communities past that also went the way of the buildings and infrastructure. In one of those transformative texts, he wrote of this passing of urban living, by recounting his experiences encountering the varied historic and prehistoric ways community inspired architecture, “… pueblo dwellings of the Southwest, urban brownstones and town squares of Colonial New England into a tapestry reflecting the varied strains of American life.”
Historic preservation became to Scully a way of hanging on to the notion of community found in the spirits of the old buildings and their roots in the landscape. Scully’s passing reminds us that people die, but the neighborhoods, town and cities they built remain to remind us how living together, really together can promote community.
See full Washington Post article here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/vincent-scully-yale-scholar-who-explored-architectures-humanizing-force-dies-at-97/2017/12/01/944ab3fc-cfd5-11e7-a1a3-0d1e45a6de3d_story.html?utm_term=.d78710c1ab04